AGM 2012: A Call to Speak Truth to Power

Melodi's picture

One of CPJ’s primary mandates is to help governments understand what implications their decisions hold for people who are vulnerable and in need. So, what do we do when government decisions and policy put economic expansion ahead of caring for these very people?

It’s a question that speakers, former executive director of the National Council of Welfare (NCW) Sheila Regehr, and CPJ policy analyst Simon Lewchuk, raised at CPJ’s recent Annual General Meeting in Ottawa.

Simon Lewchuk and Sheila Regehr

Their answer? We stay engaged. Both Sheila and Simon echoed the words of Dan Meades of Vibrant Communities Calgary, who maintains that in times like these, we are called to speak truth to power.

It is this commitment to public justice that CPJ friends and supporters gathered to celebrate at the 2012 AGM. The evening provided an opportunity to recount the work of CPJ in 2011, to renew a common vision for public justice in Canada, and to reflect on some of the challenges facing CPJ and other nongovernmental organizations in our effort to help build a more just, caring society.

A key challenge discussed at the meeting is the diminishing openness and access to truth itself—at least those truths that might counter prevailing economic theory. As Sheila pointed out, our present political climate is one of growing apprehension, as widespread government funding cuts to charitable organizations have sparked a fear of speaking out in public. The shutting down of numerous agencies that provide the facts needed to make knowledgeable, wise public policy decisions, particularly with concern to poverty, inequality, and human rights, undermines the ability to speak out in the first place.

As a former member of one those vital organizations, Sheila took the opportunity to highlight a few truths that must be acknowledged if we want to be a nation that cares for all its citizens.

The Truth about the Economy

First, Sheila emphasized that money has come to define our society. It guides the distribution of power, and serves as our common denominator, determining what is and what isn’t important in public policy-making.

It follows that our economic system is one that only measures and values paid market activity. This is problematic, said Sheila, because it leaves a vast amount of life qualities and essential human activity undervalued and uncompensated. This includes things like child development, good health, clean air, and positive social relations, which cannot simply be measured in monetary terms.

Sheila drew particular attention to the work of caregivers – namely women – whose labours, from child-rearing to housekeeping, are indispensable in society but remain uncompensated. Uncompensated equals vulnerability to poverty. She stressed that until we find some way to measure, value and compensate this essential economic activity, poverty, along with other societal ills, will remain endemic.

Crowd at CPJ's Annual Meeting

The Truth about the Poor

Sheila further challenged prevailing economic dogma by debunking a popular myth about the poor. Accepted economic theory holds that the more of something you have, the less motivated you are to get more of it. In other words, a person would put more effort into getting the first ice cream cone on a hot day than the second one. This theory drives the argument to keep welfare rates low because (in theory) that provides incentive for people to work harder.

But evidence suggests that this theory doesn’t hold for people in poverty, said Sheila. Citing the work of Charles Karelis, she explained that until people have their basic needs met, each additional dollar is actually more important than the last. Newfoundland and Quebec have demonstrated this by raising welfare rates for lone parents up to the basic needs level and finding that they are more, not less, inclined to be in the paid labour force.

The Truth about Power

In a time when power truly seems to rest in the hands of a few, and vigorous public debate is stifled, it is easy to become discouraged. But Sheila reminded listeners that power still resides outside of parliamentary halls. It resides in numbers, in intelligence and creativity, in boldness and conviction, and in collaboration and cooperation. It also resides in kindness – going after ideas and policies, not people.

Beyond this, there is power in Canada’s historical culture of moderation and reciprocity. For Canadians, leaders like Tommy Douglas and programs like public healthcare are iconic because we value the common good.

Power also resides in government and we can’t ignore that. Nor can we give up on our leaders. As Sheila reminded, it is still our billions of dollars in tax money the government spends every year. If we want the government to prioritize people before money, and invest our dollars in measures that lift people out of poverty instead of in prisons, pipelines and planes, we need to say so.

Citizens for Public Justice will continue to do its part in illuminating the realities of Canadian life for the most vulnerable in our society and calling our government to place human well-being and the integrity of creation ahead of economic growth. We will continue speak truth to power because that is our mandate, and because we know that to remain silent is to accept the status quo.

 

Melodi Alopaeus is CPJ’s former policy intern.

Comments

Submitted by John Hiemstra on
Great speeches, Thanks! Just an observation: the term "speaking truth to power" has a lot of cache, and has been around for quite a while. The somewhat unhappy baggage of this fine term, is that it assumes Christians and others speak and do justice from the outside, speaking truth to power, which is on the inside. But, that is not exclusively the case in Canada. We have many good politicians and bureaucrats on the inside, as well as many convicted Christians, and stil more who should find their place in side, who need to see themselves not as an outside pressure, but as participants in the public process of discerning and doing our public justice calling as public 'servants.' Using terminology like "speaking truth to power," feeds a mentality of Us vs. THEM, and eventually can create the mentally in us that always puts us on the outside... Not where public justice-loving citizens should want to be, exclusively. Cheers, John

Submitted by Simon on
Good point, John. You’re right: it’s not “us” and “them”. There are many good people "inside" the political process seeking truth and justice & serving the common good. We must affirm, support and encourage these people in living out their calling. Doing this is one of the things CPJ has historically been best known for (and something that we need to constantly remind ourselves!)

Submitted by David s on
Hello Melodi, I would echo what John said on the use of language, as while "social justice" advocates never lack passion for the cause, they often adopt a mindset and a language that comes across as self aggrandizing, patronizing and simplistic. Take for example the use of the slogan "speaking truth to power"... This bromide is demeaning to those who have been called to elected public service, as it is really an accusation that those in public service (aka "power") are oblivious to truth, and that they have to be confronted by those who special access to this elusive"truth"...

Submitted by Melodi on
Thanks for your input, David. I agree that advocates certainly do not have a monopoly on truth, nor does anyone else. The word “truth” itself might be a distraction. “Truth” in this context (as I understood it) was meant to be more synonymous with “information” or “facts” – facts that often require research or experience to procure. In this regard, some people do have special access to certain facts. Health care workers are going to understand the impact of reduced health care for refugees better than most. An environmental toxicologist will have a much more sophisticated understanding of the impact of an industrial project on the environment than most. Every government comes with its own knowledge and skill-set, but every government also (ideally) relies enormously on other experts and bodies for the facts they need to make good policy decisions. It follows that those in power can choose to ignore some of the facts or even be genuinely oblivious to the facts by not empowering fact-finders to procure information. We’re in a season where many of those in power do seem to be making this choice in some areas of governance. I think the main idea in “speaking truth to power,” as it was presented at the AGM, is that when facts are left uncovered or dismissed by those in power, it is important that others continue to dig them up and highlight the realities of life in Canada for those who are overlooked.

Submitted by John Hiemstra on
I can't resist opening another angle on this topic, namely, that while Christians and others may work for public justice inside the political system, there is also the sad and weighty reality, that so much of our public life, economically and politically, is caught up in an economic growth obsessed, ecology-destroying, and wasteful lifestyle--and this is so widely accepted, that even to suggest we need to consider a healthier, alternative, no-growth, re-deployment approach to economics and life, is to stand outside the mainstream. Then, again, we are speaking the truth to power on the outside... But, yes again, we recognize there are some bureaucrats and politicians who see this problem and agree... but the thrust of the current system, seems to make it hard even to raise this point for discussion ... John

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